Angel Heart, Don't Look Now, Double Indemnity... It's not hard to find films that helped shade Christopher Nolan's neo-noir. Indeed, on its cinematic release, every review appeared to delight in offering up a few more suggested influences, from DOA to Groundhog Day. None of which should distract from the fact that, in both premise and execution, Memento boasts an audacity and intensity few films can equal.
Haunted, gaunt and confused, Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) is an ex-insurance-investigator burrowing into his past to discover who raped and murdered his wife. The kicker? He can't form new memories: 10 minutes after any event, he forgets it. Defying this total non-recall, Leonard scrawls notes, snaps Polaroids and etches tattoos about his person, trying to keep track of the facts.
Helping him, or possibly not, are a cop (Joe Pantoliano) and a barmaid (Carrie-Anne Moss). Helping us, or possibly not, is Nolan's structuring of the story. Events take place in staccato segments, each one ending where the previous scene began. This bewildering arrangement of effect before cause achieves Nolan's primary intent: keeping the viewer as disorientated and uneasy as the protagonist. Adding further pathos to proceedings and spin to syntax is the tale - - told in flashbacks - - of Sammy Jankis (Stephen Tobolowsky), another sufferer of fractured memory whom Shelby once investigated and whose wife (Harriet Harris) also died.
Nolan manages this complex narrative structure with utter mastery and just a hint of glee. Initial flashiness - - the opening's Polaroid `undeveloping', a murder played in rewind - - give way to jagged but consistent lurches forward (or backwards...) that start to make sense as the bigger picture unfolds.
For its ingenious idea alone, the movie deserves plaudits. But carrying it through without descending into gimmickry or disappearing up its own logic is little short of miraculous. And repeat viewings reveal more than just extra puzzle pieces. There's real heart to the characters, diffused through subtle, strong performances.
Pearce is superb. Despite having nothing approaching an emotional arc, he still moves with an unworldly combination of utter determination and fragile focus. He also has all the best lines (""How am I supposed to heal if I can't feel time?""). Moss and Pantoliano also impress, but Tobolowsky and Harris are the supporting standouts: their pain bleeds off the screen. This is what makes Memento resonate. Beyond the tricks and technique is a none-darker noir, populated by the helpless and cynical. All in need of a dignity that remains heartbreakingly out of reach.
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